Despite mass shootings, Democrats still find tackling gun control too risky

Charlotte ObserverAugust 2, 2012 

Even in the wake of last month’s Colorado shooting rampage and a gunman’s spree last year that nearly killed former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, don’t expect Democrats to arrive in Charlotte armed with renewed calls for tougher gun laws.

The issue is too risky.

Yet with the party’s platform committee set to hammer out its positions on everything from homeland security to Social Security and Medicare next week in Detroit, some North Carolina Democrats say they’ll push the party to at least take a tougher stand on controlling access to assault weapons.

“Democrats haven’t been altogether forceful on the (gun control) issue,” said state Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro, an N.C. delegate and member of the party’s platform committee. “But given the recent shootings in Arizona and Colorado – and a ton of shootings around the country that don’t get all the attention – we need to be, and can be, more thoughtful on the guns issue.”

She will urge the party to support reinstituting a 1994 ban on assault weapons. The ban expired in 2004, and attempts to renew it have grabbed little traction.

Gun rights groups are too powerful, Harrison said. They argue that any form of gun control makes it hard for crime victims to defend themselves and that criminals would get guns illegally. “The anti-control people aren’t willing to cede any ground and compromise,” said Harrison, who owns guns for shooting sporting clays or skeet. “Assault weapons are nearly impossible to justify. I plan to go to Detroit and advocate for a stronger position.”

The July 20 shooting that killed 12 and wounded 58 in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater gave gun control supporters new ammunition to push for renewal of the assault weapon ban. It banned 19 models of semiautomatic guns.

Colorado authorities say doctoral student James Holmes, the alleged gunman, legally bought a semiautomatic AR-15 with a 100-round magazine.

The gun would have been banned under the 1994 law.

Harrison also wants federal lawmakers to require states to share “gun data” to help prevent people from legally amassing a 6,000-round arsenal – as police say Holmes did.

“There is no justification for allowing an individual to shoot off that many rounds,” Harrison said.

She’ll find some support from fellow North Carolinians.

N.C. Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh, a former N.C. House speaker, is all for Democrats addressing access to assault and other military-style weapons.

“I certainly support the Second Amendment (right to bear arms), but I don’t think that everybody ought to be able to have a tank in their back yard,” said Blue, a party rules committee member. “Assault weapons are hard to control and they’re designed to mow down a lot of people.

“Most people agree there needs to be some restrictions on the availability of these military-style weapons.”

An intensely polarizing issue

Days after the Colorado shooting, gun control advocates took heart when President Barack Obama told the National Urban League his administration would “leave no stone unturned” to reduce gun violence – including restricting gun ownership.

Even gun owners, Obama said, would agree that AK-47 assault rifles belonged in the hands of military troops, “not children.”

Yet a day later, his office said that Obama wouldn’t push for stricter gun laws, only better enforcement of existing laws.

Next to abortion, gun control is perhaps America’s most polarizing issue. Few Democrats are willing to run afoul of powerful gun rights lobbies such as the National Rifle Association.

Tackling the issue has always required a delicate balance between respecting the Second Amendment and curbing gun violence by limiting access.

Now with a tight presidential race and a fragile hold by Democrats on the Senate, few expect Democrats in close contests to say much about the issue.

Brad Thompson, a DNC platform committee member from Raleigh, is new to the platform process, but hopes the party speaks out on the easy accessibility of assault weapons – and ammunition.

“It represents a problem,” Thompson said. “The access needs to be managed.”

On Monday, Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of New York, both Democrats and longtime gun control advocates, introduced legislation they say would prevent people from buying unlimited amounts of ammunition on the Internet.

But congressional leaders said there wouldn’t be enough time in the current session to get into a gun control debate.

“It’s political dynamite,” said UNC Charlotte political scientist Eric Heberlig. “When the president talked about gun control to the Urban League, he talked about restricting assault weapons, an element of gun control that is more popular.

“I don’t believe he would have talked about it at all had Aurora not occurred.”

The 1994 effect

The 1994 midterm elections taught Democrats how risky promoting gun control can be.

During President Bill Clinton’s first term, the Democrat-controlled Senate and House passed the Brady Bill – instituting background checks for firearm buyers. The next year – in 1993 – they passed the assault weapons ban.

Clinton signed the law in September. Two months later, Democrats lost control of both chambers.

Many Democrats blamed the gun control votes for the dramatic losses.

Since then, the Democrats seem to have given up on the debate, Heberlig said.

“The silence you’ve heard from President Obama and other leading Democrats is the continuation of the political understanding in the Democratic Party that it doesn’t do them any good to talk about gun control,” Heberlig said.

“They learned in 1994 there’s no point in risking it. ... They’ve decided there’s no point in losing more seats in Congress or taking a chance in the presidential race.”

Still, the 1996 Democratic platform remained tough on gun control. It forcefully stated that Clinton in a second term would veto any attempt to repeal the Brady Bill and assault weapons ban.

‘Reasonable regulation’

Twelve years later at the 2008 Democrat convention, Democrats had retreated from tough language, despite outrage over the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech that killed 32 people.

The party’s platform said the right to bear arms is “an important part of the American tradition.” But that right was “subject to reasonable regulation.”

As they had before, Democrats called for closing gun show loopholes and renewing the assault weapon ban.

Now, as Democrats head to their convention in Charlotte, they face more outrage from the Aurora shootings – and another balancing act.

“Certainly there will be factions in the Democratic Party who will be pushing for tighter controls,” UNCC’s Heberlig said. “The party will want to find a way to accommodate them: ‘Yes we’re with you; we understand. But we don’t want to say anything about it.’”


Republican (excerpt): “We uphold the right of individual Americans to own firearms, a right which antedated the Constitution and was solemnly confirmed by the Second Amendment. ... Gun ownership is responsible citizenship, enabling Americans to defend themselves, their property, and communities.

... We condemn frivolous lawsuits against firearms manufacturers, which are transparent attempts to deprive citizens of their rights. We oppose federal licensing of law-abiding gun owners and national gun registration as violations of the Second Amendment. We recognize that gun control only affects and penalizes law-abiding citizens, and that such proposals are ineffective at reducing violent crime.”

Democrat (full): “We recognize that the right to bear arms is an important part of the American tradition, and we will preserve Americans’ Second Amendment right to own and use firearms. We believe that the right to own firearms is subject to reasonable regulation, but we know that what works in Chicago may not work in Cheyenne. We can work together to enact and enforce commonsense laws and improvements – like closing the gun show loophole, improving our background check system, and reinstating the assault weapons ban – so that guns do not fall into the hands of terrorists or criminals. Acting responsibly and with respect for differing views on this issue, we can both protect the constitutional right to bear arms and keep our communities and our children safe.”

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